Mobility counselor Tracey Robinson helps families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty to ones that are more economically diverse. She stands in front of the housing project unit where her own family once lived, before they moved in to a middle class neighborhood through a mobility program.
Mobility counselor Tracey Robinson helps families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty to ones that are more economically diverse. She stands in front of the housing project unit where her own family once lived, before they moved in to a middle class neighborhood through a mobility program. - 

The zip code you live in can have a big impact on your economic destiny. That notion is at the heart of a number of local and federal anti-poverty initiatives --  called "residential mobility" programs. They help low-income families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, struggling schools, and few economic opportunities to middle class places where schools are often better -- and, at least in theory, the opportunities are better too. But while there may be an economic pay off in an "opportunity area" down the road, in the short term a move to a very different kind of neighborhood involves a lot of adjustments, and many are not easy.  

Some adjustments are welcome, of course. Take squirrels. If you have lived in a middle class neighborhood for most of your life, you might take them, and their scampering, for granted. But when Valerie Love and her 12-year-old daughter, Jada, recently moved to Albany Park on the north side of Chicago, squirrels were the first things they noticed.

Jada remembers how her mom began throwing jelly beans to the squirrels.

"They was coming out from every direction," Love laughs.

Their old neighborhood, says Jada, had a different kind of wildlife.  

"It had bugs," she says.

While working on some home improvements -- like putting up a closet door-- they tell me about some of the other differences between their old neighborhood and their new one. In the old neighborhood, shooting deaths were not uncommon, and many buildings had been abandoned. Love says it "looked like somebody took a grenade and blew up half the blocks."
 
Their new neighborhood is, Jada says, "peaceful and clean." Her mom adds, "there's no gangs hanging on the corner."

Squirrels, peacefulness ... these new experiences are welcome for Jada and her mother.  Love is also proud of her shiny, new kitchen, which she says the landlord used as a big selling point. "He said it's a European-style kitchen, microwave over the stove and a stainless steel refrigerator," says Love.

But there are other adjustments involved in their recent move that have been hard and uncomfortable. Love shows me her bedroom, where she's taped plastic over the windows for extra insulation in the cold winter. When her landlord visited, she says, "He said he don't like the plastic over the windows." 

He didn't like the blanket either, with the face of a tiger, that she's hung over the doorway to the guest room. 

"He came here complaining about that. 'You got a rug over the door.' I said 'a blanket, sir, a blanket,'" she says.
 
It's an unspoken thing, but even after seven months in their new world, it's easy to feel judged by a landlord over decorating choices and by new neighbors.

"In the back yard, everybody has grills on the porch," says Love. "I don't socialize too much with the neighbors in the building."

She feels like an outsider.


Changing neighborhoods can change your life Helping poor families relocate to safer neighborhoods with better schools shown to improve mobility for children.

 

Jacqualine Williams* also recently moved through a residential mobility program -- to a middle class neighborhood in Chicago's north side. It's called Edgewater, and like the area where Valerie and Jada Love live, Williams says it doesn't have a lot of other black residents.  

"The first tendency is to say, you know, I'm just going to keep to myself. But that's not going to feel good for you and you might have a lot that that community can benefit from," says Williams.
 
Williams says in some cases, she's faced outright discrimination. She says two landlords told her they wouldn't rent to tenants who had federal rent vouchers, and she's filed legal complaints against them. Williams says even though she feels like she sticks out -- for having subsidized rent, for being black- - she says she's trying to make connections in her new community.   

"I patronize the boutiques and the restaurant. I think the alderman or something put on this annual Halloween type of thing. And there wasn't that many African-Americans there. Now I can't say that I developed friends there, but we got to meet people," says Williams.

Tracey Robinson is a "mobility counselor" with a group called Housing Choice Partners in Chicago. She's helped Jackie Williams -- and people like her -- to move, and adjust to their new neighborhoods. Robinson goes down a mental list of some of the common challenges clients run in to. One woman couldn't get used to how quiet her new neighborhood was. Another was worried about leaving behind the friends and family from her old neighborhood, who helped out with babysitting. Though once she moved, she realized the trade-off was that in a safer neighborhood, her kids could do more stuff on their own.  
 
"Her grandchildren can actually ride the bus on their own now, and she's glad she made the move," says Robinson. "She don't have to worry."     

Robinson has first-hand experience with moving from a poor neighborhood to a middle class one. Her family went through a mobility program a few years ago and she still remembers the rocky beginnings.

"It was almost a month, we were getting the cold shoulder," says Robinson.
 
She decided to tackle the problem head on.  

"Finally, I went up to one of my neighbors and I introduced myself, and I just let her know if we had offended her in any way, accept our apology. And that's when she went to tell me about how the parking went," says Robinson.
 
I turns out there was an unspoken rule on her new block that everybody got one parking spot in front of their own house. The Robinsons had been parking in front of other people's homes.  

"If somebody had said 'You know what, welcome to the neighborhood, we kind of let everyone park in front of our house, blah blah blah', we would have ran with that. But, we -- we didn't know," she says.

Now, because they asked, the Robinsons do know. Tracey Robinson says it was a little thing, but it made it so much easier to feel comfortable. She's been friends with her neighbors ever since. 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name Jacqualine Williams.  The error has been corrected.

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